Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Religious Liberty Being Rebranded as ‘Christian Privilege?’

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Yesterday, there was a panel discussion on religious liberty sponsored by the Center for American Progress in Washington. Joel Gehrke has an excellent summation of the event in the Washington Examiner that highlighted some remarks by C. Welton Gaddy.

Later in the talk, Gaddy agreed with an interlocutor who asked if liberals “need to start educating, and calling out, Christians for trying to exercise ‘Christian privilege.'”

“As a Christian” — a big part of Gaddy’s rhetorical power seemed to derive from the fact that, as a Christian and a former Southern Baptist, he could ratify all of the CAP audience’s views of the people with whom they disagreed — “I think Christians ought to start calling each other out, because I think you’re exactly right,” he said.

This kind of nonsensical language echoes a kind of NewSpeak highlighted by George Orwell in his novel 1984. It is a controlled language created by the state and their apparatchiks as a tool to silence freedom of thought and conscience. We’ve seen it too by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the Obama administration, who have subtly shifted away from the term religious freedom, preferring to call it “freedom of worship” instead. The shift highlights the goal by many of the secular left to confine or ghettoize religious freedom to the four walls of churches. You can believe what you want and practice whatever you want as long as it is contained to the four walls of the church.

As the rights of conscience and religious liberty continue to face attacks in this country, it may become apparent that the only recourse for many who face a violation of their religious conscience may be the kind of peaceful civil disobedience modeled by the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King reminded us that the conscience of the state is the Church. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor,” declared King, “it must be demanded by the oppressed.” If the conscience of the Church is stripped away, what ultimate authority is left to limit and check the state?

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • Charles Terrence Harper

    Interesting, except the Civil Rights movement worked because all the press needed to do was to reveal the truth. Civil Disobedience will not work in this case, because those who see the images of Christians being arrested will only cheer them on. I find it interesting that Evangelicals are calling on this imagery when they were largely silent while African Americans were struggling for their basic dignity. In fact, it was because of this era that Evangelicalism lost its opportunity to influence the press. The silence displayed then is coming back now to haunt and bringing chickens home to roost.

    How ironic.

    • RayNothstine


      Plenty of people cheered the aggression of Bull Connor in Birmingham but it became a major turning point for what had largely been somewhat of a PR fail for a rather unpopular Civil Rights Movement before 1963. This is why King made the controversial decision to use children during the marches, to change the imagery. The images sent around the world shamed an America trying to showcase their moral authority during the Cold War. I think you are right to imply press coverage wouldn’t be positive and you are certainly right that there was a large segment of Evangelicals disinterested in the Civil Rights Movement, but certainly not all. I am not sure how any past silence by many who are now dead would cancel out the moral authority when it comes to the fundamental right of religious liberty. Thanks for the comment.

    • Bazza

      As many used the teaching of the church as support for slavery and the oppression of African Americans as used it to oppose them. The lesson should be that the church was never a conscience for the state – even the briefest study of history will show that – only the citizens of that state can be that conscience and religion matters less than a concern for fellow human beings who are being treated terribly.

      • cordeg

        This comment demonstrates the most superficial grasp of the history of religion and The Church in America. Some people take Science and cure cancer; some take Science and build bombs to blow up schoolchildren. Science did not fail in either case. Religion can be similar to Science in this sense. Some evil men can see Religion as a means to assert control over people without resorting to violence. It has certainly happened. Such people cannot be said to be “religious” in any sense of the word that doesn’t defy logic. Evil men and women in America did in fact often try to cloak themselves in “religion” to obfuscate the vile racism that filled their hearts and heads. This did not make Religion racist. The Church, meanwhile, is something not exactly Religion. The Church is a organizational entity; Religion a general notion. The Church, in fact, never acquiesced to American racism or slavery. An occupational hazard of sorts of The Church is that — to over-simplify things for brevity — it teaches humans not to dwell too greatly on suffering on Earth, since this life is merely a transient condition. This is not the same as justifying those who cause suffering. To conflate the two requires fairly astonishing ignorance — either willful or inadvertent. As to Evangelicals, it can rather definitively be said that without Evangelicals there would have been no First American Civil Rights Movement in the 1800s, nor Modern Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century; it is far more tenuous to claim that Evangelicals in some broad sense justified slavery, whether individual evangelical adherents may have tried to use their religious affiliation as a beard to cover their support for the peculiar institution. If you received an MBA from Harvard and then claimed that your educated business sense justified your belief that banks should force all depositors to give you half their money, it is not intellectually honest to claim that Harvard as an institution justified such thievery. The Church can, moreover, be fairly said to have been a conscience for
        popular culture in some eras, though not for the state (if I understand
        your use of the phrase). However, that merely displaces the moment of action one level. The Church and Evangelicals guided popular culture and popular opinion, which then acted upon The State to effect change during the First American Civil Rights Movement (the remnants of which remain with us today in law and custom, just as does the Movement of the modern era, though the former gets short shrift in popular culture today — many Americans think the regulations enforced at, for example, the EEOC are the result mainly of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when in fact they are more so from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, nearly a century before.) The Modern Civil Rights Movement also owed much to The Church and Evangelicals, though not in precisely the same way. Their power in modern culture had already waned in comparison to that earlier era. Of course, SOME Evangelicals, like The Church in particular, suffer from the fact that they are focused more on the “after-life” than the “life” — suggesting that whatever injustice one suffers on Earth only serves to make you better understand true justice and leads you to a closer relationship with Christ’s suffering for you. MLK Jr. certainly wound up the Baptist Church with his social justice focus, while seeming to neglect the souls of both the oppressor and the oppressed. OTHER Evangelicals, however, have a long history in America (centuries) of preaching and focusing on fair treatment of all God’s children as part of our charter here on Earth — though the notion is often misunderstood because it is geared toward what YOU do to/about your fellow man, rather than what is being done to your fellow man; that is, more about teaching you how you should act justly than whether or not justice is always present. This is that occupational hazard again, but I suppose the plan is based on universal sign-on to The Church’s teachings — which would result in ALL men acting justly toward one another — and cannot stop non-believers from acting profoundly un-justly toward some. Frankly, however, I suspect that you use the term Evangelicals to mean
        particular sects today which irritate you in some way, rather than as a
        term of art. Which is OK, I suppose, so long as you try to make that clear.

  • This is hilarious! Socialists want to use originalism to interpret the Constitution? I don’t think so! Clearly Gaddy is as ignorant of the Constitution as he is everything else.

    The Constitution doesn’t matter. No one has followed it since Lincoln, including Lincoln. What matters is the will of the majority. If the majority follows Gaddy, then we’re in trouble. But keep in mind Christians in the USSR, China, and all Muslim countries. They have no political freedom, but they’re still free. Christ set them free and no one can take that away. If US Christians have to suffer like the persecuted Church, we should consider it an honor, as the persecuted Church does.

    • Bazza

      Well then that’s okay – atheists don’t think you’re being persecuted at all, quite the reverse, and you think that you are being persecuted but see it as a good thing. So let’s keep up that separation of church and state that you see as persecution and we can all be happy!

  • Pingback: Religious Liberty Versus Secular Tyranny | Acton PowerBlog()

  • Pingback: Midwest Christian Outreach Inc. Blog — When Did Freedom of Conscience become Christian Privilege?()